Dec 21, 2021

With New Coach, UT Men’s Basketball Looks to Its Past to Build for the Future

Reporting Texas

University of Texas at Austin students celebrate a score during the game against the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 4, 2021. Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

Thousands of students piled on top of each other, their screams raining down to the court as the University of Texas men’s basketball team made its return to Gregory Gym to take on the Sam Houston Bearkats. It was the first UT men’s basketball game in Gregory Gym in 45 years.

Gregory Gymnasium, with its orange brick facade on Speedway in the heart of the UT campus, was built in 1930 for about $500,000. The gym was a big project for the university’s expanding campus — just as the under-construction Moody Center, Longhorn basketball’s next home, is today.

Texas basketball had a historic run in Gregory, making seven NCAA Tournament appearances, winning nine Southwest Conference championships and setting a standard for the program moving forward.

Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

“We have one of the coolest venues in all of basketball, Gregory Gym. It’s an awesome place,” said Chris Beard, the first-year head coach of Texas men’s basketball. “You walk in there and it feels like basketball.” 

Playing a game in Gregory Gym in November is one way Beard is trying to use tradition and past success to build a new basketball culture at a university long known as a football school.

“The game is about honoring the past, uniting the family, and getting the students on board,” Beard said of the first game at Gregory since 1977.

That was the year that Texas basketball moved across campus to the 16,000-seat Frank Erwin Center, a multipurpose arena that is set to give way next year to the Moody Center. For many years, Longhorn men’s basketball suffered from low fan turnout and inconsistent play on the Erwin Center’s court.

Senior guard Andrew Jones, right, flies to the hoop on a fast break against the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 4, 2021. The team has responded to the culture Beard is fostering and has risen in the rankings. Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

The program returned to national prominence in the 2000s under coach Rick Barnes, who landed such star recruits and future NBA stars as Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford and LaMarcus Aldridge. Under Barnes, the Longhorns made it to the NCAA Tournament all but one of his 17 seasons and to the Final Four in 2003. 

But after a few years of early NCAA Tournament losses, the university fired Barnes and hired Shaka Smart in 2015. But the young coach who’d had success at Virginia Commonwealth never won an NCAA Tournament game at Texas. Attendance fell to 8,000 per game. Smart was fired after six seasons, making way for Beard’s arrival this year. 

Beard, who previously took Texas Tech all the way to the national championship,  immediately went to work making major changes to the team. 

His first Longhorn squad features four returners, eight transfers and three freshmen — an overhauled roster that gives Beard an opportunity to build the culture he hopes to see on and off the court.

Timmy Allen, second from right, calls for a pass from Tre Mitchell, second from left, as he cuts to the basket against the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 4, 2021. Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

“Nothing great happens without an emotional attachment,” Beard said. “So we gotta get an emotional attachment with our fans, and to do that you have got to have a relationship.”

To get fans more engaged with the team, Beard has invited students to watch practices, paid for their dinner at Pluckers and thrown a darty (day party) at the UT Tower before the throwback game at Gregory. 

UT men’s basketball coach Chris Beard poses with fans after the team’s victory against the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. In addition to coaching the team, he has also focused on increasing fan engagement. Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

Fans began lining up on the steps of Gregory Gym and down Speedway as early as 2 p.m. for wristbands for the night’s festivities. Students were treated to free food trucks, live music and appearances from Beard and the team before in front of the Tower.

William Bandy, 21-year-old member of the Hellraisers spirit group and lifetime Longhorn fan, is loving what Beard has done both with the team and the fans so far.

I think that’s the way a basketball program should be run on any level. I love the way he is getting students involved,” Bandy said.

While Bandy and many fans are hopeful for the future there are still some who are hesitant to get their hopes up for the changes that have been promised in the past.

“He is trying to do something that has never really been done at Texas, so I appreciate it,” Bandy said. “The hesitancy is less about what he can bring as a coach but right now can the team win?”

A culture of teamwork has become a hallmark of the Longhorns as Devin Askew is helped up by his teammates Christian Bishop, from left, Trisin Licon, and Avery Benson after he took a charge late in the game against the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley on Dec. 4, 2021. . Kevin Malcolm Jr./Reporting Texas

As shown from years past, winning has been a big factor in UT fan attendance. The changes Beard has made seem to have worked, judging from the continuously filled and at times sold-out student sections early in the season. On the court, the Longhorns are ranked in the top 25.

The changes for the Horns won’t stop this year. The men’s and women’s basketball teams will be making the Moody Center their home beginning with the 2022-23 season. The $388 million 15,000-seat arena will be the next step in the evolution of UT basketball.

“I understand the standards of the University of Texas,” Beard said. “Those expectations and standards don’t scare me.”